Wednesday, 16 August 2017

All Power to the Soviets! - China Mieville on the October Revolution

All too slowly, this year, I have been making my way through alternating readings on the Irish, and the Russian, revolutions.  Not all the material I have worked through has been 'radical' - no amount of huffing and puffing by Colm Toibin is going to convince me that Roy Foster's Vivid Faces is a text whose radicality matches that of some of its subjects.  But Foster, though he often condescends to his 'revolutionary generation', is learned and brings together wonderful material from memoirs, diaries, letters, and other documents by participants in the turbulent events in Ireland in the 1912-1923 era.  I have read Emmet O'Connor's short biography of Larkin, and Claire Wills's excellent account of the General Post Office both during the 1916 Rising and in its commemoration long afterwards.  I am currently reading Charles Townsend's history of the Rising.  And I have intermixed this Irish material with accounts of the events of 1917 in Russia - a short history of the Revolution by Trotskyist Neil Faulkner; John Reed's often electrifying, sometimes bewildering Ten Days That Shook The World, and Sheila Fitzpatrick's short but authoritative history.  Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin awaits my attention, and I've read back into the nineteenth century via Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers: hardly a radical account of Tsarist Russia, but a hint of intellectual background.

The book I anticipate most eagerly - friends will know that much of my life is predicated on books anticipated eagerly: alas, not always an indicator that said books will actually be read! - is China Mieville's October.  I confess I had never heard of Mieville until his name appeared in the Verso catalogue I get a couple of times a year with my New Left Review.  And so I have learned that he is a renowned science-fiction novelist, and a Marxist theorist of some capacity.   A writer of many talents.   Wonderful that he should turn those talents to give a fine narrative history of the Revolution.  Here he is in discussion with Eric Blanc, no mean writer himself:

October and Its Relevance: A Discussion with China Miéville


'To Live Free, or Die' - Remembering the Black Jacobins

Two days ago, we passed the anniversary of the start of the great slave revolt and revolution of Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, as we now call it, in 1791.   To mark this tremendous moment - one of the cruxes in anti-colonial history when 'European' ideas and values were turned most powerfully against European power - Verso published an extraordinary document addressed by Toussaint L'Ouverture and his comrades to the French colonial assembly.  In the wake of Charlotteville, I post here an earlier iteration of the idea that 'black lives matter'.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Face Down In His Own Bullshit - The Overdue Demise of Kevin Myers

Back around 1990, within a few months of each other, I purchased two excellent collections of journalism.  The first was Corruptions of Empire: for me, Alexander Cockburn's finest book.  The second was Prepared for the Worst, a brilliant collection of essays and reports by Christopher Hitchens.   These writers  both seemed to combine a number of talents - great wit, acerbic humour, strong leftwing sensibilities, wide reading, and a willingness ruthlessly to cut down and eviscerate the cant of power.  At this time, they both were writing for The Nation, a fine liberal-left magazine in America, and they offered vivid commentary on the American political scene that went way beyond the numbing boilerplate of mainstream 'analysis'.  The fact that neither was American - Hitchens was English, and Cockburn was Anglo-Irish/Scots and carried an Irish passport - seemed to allow them particular insight on political machinations inside and beyond the Washington Beltway.  And lastly they both were utterly fearless.

I admired and read them both, avidly and with the greatest pleasure.  I showed my mother Cockburn's hilarious account of being visited at his public school by his father Claud, who appeared without any socks and who spun a wonderful story of how he'd lost them to a vengeful Sikh who had shared his couchette on the train north, and she read the tale again and again.  A girlfriend and I hooted with laughter as we read 'Booze and Fags', a brilliant review by Hitchens of books about tobacco and hooch in the London Review.  Through them both, I learned of figures such as Israel Shahak, maybe the most courageous and cogent Israeli dissenting intellectual in the history of the Jewish State.  Hitchens wrote superb forensic essays on Conor Cruise O'Brien, and a tremendous defence of Chomsky.  Cockburn told tales of cooking meat on a griddle placed over the engine of one of his enormous vintage American automobiles, which allowed him to drive to a friend's barbecue and arrive with his contribution to the party ready to be enjoyed.  They both wrote excoriating critiques of the 1970s and 1980s generation of neoconservatives - Irving Kristol and the odious Norman Podhoretz.  And they both mercilessly exposed the sentimentality and moral blindness of American 'liberals' - such as Martin Peretz, 'editor in chief' of The New Republic - when it came to Israel in Lebanon and in the Territories.   My convictions in regard to Palestine were decisively changed by Cockburn and Hitchens, well before I read Edward Said.

They knew each other and were presumed to be friends. But one noticed a certain imbalance - Hitchens was fond of referring to his friendship with Cockburn, and dedicated one of his books to Patrick Cockburn's son, Henry.  But Cockburn barely ever referred to Hitchens in his writing.

Something went wrong for Hitchens.  Most obviously, 9/11 happened, and he developed a passionate revulsion against what he called 'Islamo-fascism'.  I think he invented the term.  Not that he'd ever been remotely sentimental about the Gulf princelings and their cruel regimes - he wrote an excellent essay on 'Tilting Towards Iraq' for the New Left Review just as the 1991 Gulf War was about to start, which exposed the ambivalences of the Bush Snr. regime vis-a-vis the Saddam Hussein government.  But after 9/11, Hitchens found himself in conflict with the American left, which he considered blinded by its hatred for the US government to the extent that it was prepared, if not to blame the government for what had happened, then to obsess over American involvement with Wahhabi conservatism and the jihad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan to the exclusion of all else.  For Hitchens, this led to a break with his colleagues at The Nation and he quit the magazine.  But he found a new berth in an unlikely place: Vanity Fair, which was and is a magazine predicated on good writing on the political and social mores of the middle ground - very far from Hitchens's Trotskyist origins in England indeed.  It was a mutually serviceable relationship: Vanity Fair allowed, or encouraged, Hitchens to become a celebrity like those whose activities it often covered.   His leftwing history and his foreign and war correspondent credentials allowed Vanity Fair a thrilling whiff of cordite.   Hitchens seemed to spend more and more time attacking former friends (including, particularly nastily, Edward Said shortly before Said's death), and championing the coming invasion of Iraq.  He puffed up colleagues and allies on the Arab left, such as Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, for their opposition to Saddam.  He hobnobbed with Paul Wolfowitz and other members of the Bush administration.

Cockburn, as this blog has noted elsewhere, had meanwhile taken a much braver course. He, too, had left The Nation, but he had moved away from power and institutional prominence, to live in northern California and to set up and run with Jeff St Clair the excellent Counterpunch website and magazine.   But Hitchens had become, as I say, a celebrity, close to power and bathing in its approval.  Hitchens had been seduced by the very blandishments of Babylon which he had once worked so cleverly to expose. He was now a 'contrarian', not a leftist. He took Orwell increasingly as his model, and saw his task as uncovering the idiocies, the delusions, and the malfeasance of the left.  But the difference was that when Orwell carved out his niche, Stalinist totalitarianism was a real and brutal feature of European and global politics.  By the time Hitchens became a Vanity Fair celebrity contrarian, Stalinism had collapsed and disappeared.  Hitchens's 'contrarianism' seemed a cynical betrayal of left dissent which served only to buttress the temples and redoubts of American capital and neo-imperialism.

Years ago, at the moment in Hitchens's career when he was starting to write in favour of atheism, the Gate Theatre in Dublin hosted a debate between him and John Waters. I hadn't the heart to go along to see it - not only because this discussion holds no interest for me, but also because it was obvious that what was going to transpire was not a 'debate' but a slaughter - the clumsy and earnest Waters was never going to lay a glove on the witty and battle-hardened Hitchens.  No Irish journalist has been as sparklingly brilliant as Hitchens or Cockburn, though some made that claim for Kevin Myers, for a while. Not any more.

Myers, apparently, had been a left-leaning student in UCD when it was based at Earlsfort Terrace in the late Sixties.  He reported on the war in Northern Ireland, and later from Lebanon when Israel invaded that country in 1978 and then again in 1982.  But what made Myers's career was his long stint at the Irish Times in the 'Irishman's Diary' column.  He gradually turned this platform into a stage where he took down cant of all sorts.  But increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s, the Hitchens turn could be noticed. Myers had always subscribed to the Conor Cruise O'Brien understanding of Ulster - that its struggle was one between a flawed but legitimate state and a virulently Catholic-nationalist gangsterism.  Now he turned this focus on the agonies of the overdogs onto his more everyday targets - feminism, Islam, Sinn Fein, the bien pensants of southern Irish life.  Increasingly, he wrapped about himself the mantle of the marginalised, the weak, the heretic.  His writing became more and more enamoured of itself.  The libidinal pleasures of style (for his admirers, at least) compensated more and more for the lack of argument and the paucity of evidence.   His targets became more outrageous - single mothers, 'illegitimate' children, black people.  He could never see Israel as anything other than a bastion of liberal values surrounded by a seething morass of Muslim fanatics.

Myers's reputation at the Irish Times was in decline after a column where he called the children of single mothers 'bastards', and he eventually left to go to the Irish Independent.  Since then he has moved on to several other media outlets.  Now he has been dropped by the Irish edition of The Sunday Times for a column where, in 'discussing' the imbalance in pay  between men and women at the BBC, he suggested that two female journalists at the station had made it onto the list of 'most highly paid staff' due to their Jewish tendency towards self-promotion and financial shrewdness.   It's notable that though Myers combined chauvinism and anti-Jewish stereotype in a noxious mix, it was the anti-Semitic trope that sunk him, and that was recognised in Britain much faster than in Ireland. In Ireland, he has been supported by the Jewish Council, and at least one former colleague at the Irish Times.   He has, in fact, been given extraordinary space in which he can plaintively apologise for his reprocessing of old anti-Semitic clichés and proclaim that his career is over and that he now lacks all means to keep himself.

In my last blogpost, on Varadkar and Macron, I cited the wonderful essay on Hitchens's aspiration to be the Orwell of his generation by Stefan Collini.  In that essay Collini, who was writing in 2003 more in sorrow than in anger, notes that Hitchens was becoming more and more like the 'bloke moyen sensuel' of the English 1950s.  Rather than writing like the international left where he had his origins, or like the sophisticates of New England where he now was working, Hitchens increasingly sounded far too comfortable in a conservative sense of his Englishness, like Kingsley Amis, 'pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic', or like Philip Larkin 'farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants'.  Collini suggests that such English nativists 'would be good company for a while, but their brand of bar-saloon finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism'.  Hitchens dedicated his book on Orwell to Robert Conquest, 'founder of the united front against bullshit', but Collini, comparing Hitchens to a foxhunter, fears that he will end up unhorsed and 'face down in his own bullshit'.

In truth, it's hard to have any sympathy for Kevin Myers, who has been a prominent and therefore one presumes well-paid journalist for decades, with plenty of time to make provision for his eventual retirement.  He has abused the platforms which he has benefited by, coming to assume them by right rather than understanding them as a privilege constantly to be earned.  He has spewed misogynistic bile for many years, and the support he has won from the Jewish Council of Ireland is likely to be as much predicated on his support for Israel as anything else. Neither he nor his Irish interlocutors seem to understand that his anti-Semitic remarks and his now proclaimed philo-Semitism are actually reverse faces of the same coin.   Myers, wannabe contrarian, has never been as good a hunter as Hitchens was at his best or as Cockburn was throughout his career.  He has too often pursued timid and vulnerable prey, unwilling to take on boys of his own size.  Now he lies face down in his own bullshit, and we should leave him to suffer it.

    ‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit: Christopher Hitchens, Englishman


    Monday, 31 July 2017

    Bullshit - Macron, anti-Semitism and Israel

    One of the more insufferable frameworks through which the gormless mainstream Irish media has filtered the rise to prime minister-ship of Leo Varadkar has been the comparison to Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron.  They are all young men, they all look agreeable, and they seem to have a veneer of youthful liberalism.  It all reminds me of what a rather mordant friend of mine from Ontario said to me at school in Canada 33 years ago, about 'PET' - Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin's father: he's like a condom - he makes you feel safe while you're being fucked.

    I am not sure how safe I feel around Leo Varadkar, but it's been precisely his good looks, his immigrant father, his apparent shoot-from-the-hip no-bullshit manner, and his openness about his sexuality which have made him a liberal icon in Ireland.  Not that one has to be very radical to be a liberal icon in Ireland, of course.  But idiots like Una Mullally - a 'youthful liberal' columnist at the Irish Times - have found it hard to imagine that a gay man might also be a Thatcherite.  And the merest scratching of the surface of Varadkar's past reveals an aggressive young Tory, who marries a dog-eat-dog model of society to Victorian morality about the deserving middle classes and those who rise early in the morning.

    Here is a wonderful LRB essay by Stefan Collini, on Christopher Hitchens during the years when the latter's star was in the ascendant but his intellectual and political compass had been addled by the magnetic field of neoconservatism.   Collini analyzes Hitchens's macho 'straight-talking' bullshit particularly well.   Various gaffes by Varadkar this early in his tenure as Taoiseach - judicial appointments, his attack on Paul Murphy TD - may suggest an imminent collapse into his own bullshit in the manner Collini so brilliantly describes.

      ‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit: Christopher Hitchens, Englishman

      And at the same time, the unpleasantness of Macron is gradually being revealed.   He is not a liberal - he is a neoliberal.  He is more concerned with the freedom of movement of capital, than of human  beings, though for the French he appears to represent neoliberalism with a human face. Where have we heard of that kind of combination before, and didn't it all end in tears?

      It may be that it's in foreign policy that Macron will reveal his dark side most easily or carelessly.   As this  blog has noted before, France purports to operate as the home of Enlightenment values of democracy and brotherhood in its internal politics, but in its foreign policy it is, of course, a great power, or a former great power which still wishes to deploy its own Machtpolitik in the usual combination of the ideas of Clausewitz and Hobbes.  Macron's recent meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu exemplifies this - Macron dresses up power-politics with liberal language.  But when France's purported Enlightenment universalism is affiliated with Israel and Zionism, the mask slips rather easily, since Israel and Zionism are not to be associated with liberté, égalité and fraternité - or rather they are, but only for Israel's Jewish citizens.  That is, Israel is not a democracy, but rather, as Oren Yiftachel has been arguing for some years, an ethnocracy - a polity where sovereignty lies not with the demos but with a majority ethnos.

      So here is a critique and protest against Macron's commemoration, with Bibi at his side, of the Vel d'Hiv roundup of French Jews in 1942, written and publicised by Media Palestine.  It fixes precisely on the fact that the presence at the commemoration of Netanyahu suggests that the solution to anti-Semitism is Zionism - ethnic nationalism and racism - rather than France's vaunted Enlightenment values.

      Making no concessions to the Palestinian people’s rights

      And here is an open letter addressed to Macron from the brilliant dissenting Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, which praises his willingness to address the anti-Semitic history and legacy of Vichy, but which refuses Macron's equation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism (from the Jacobin site):

      An Open Letter to Emmanuel Macron - Jacobin


      Sunday, 16 July 2017

      No it's not anti-Semitism

      Emmanuel Macron is starting to show his real colours, and the love-in with him of many non-French liberals hopefully will be over soon.   He's been meeting Benjamin Netanyahu, and has won great favour with Bibi (and so with the most rightwing government Israel has ever had) on account of his assertion that 'anti-Zionism is the new version of anti-Semitism'.   Actually, it isn't, and we need to nail this canard immediately.   No-one better for this task than Judith Butler.  Here is her classic essay on the topic:

      No, it’s not anti-semitic: the right to criticise Israel · 21 August 2003


      Tuesday, 11 July 2017

      Interview with Judith Butler: Worldliness, Collectivity and Dissent

      Few contemporary philosophers have engaged more with movements of dissent in America and elsewhere than Judith Butler, one of the heroines of this blog.  Here is an interview with her where she discusses the performativity of protest, activism and dissent.  I am taking it from the Verso website; it was originally published on The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture

      We are Worldless Without One Another: An Interview with Judith Butler


      Thursday, 29 June 2017

      General Intellect in the Age of Twitter and Trump

      What are intellectuals?   Does Ireland have any?

      I've always had the sense that to be called an 'intellectual' in Ireland and in the context of Irish culture is, at best, a backhanded compliment.  It's a little like the way that the Irish Times,when it publishes a review or article by a university-based scholar, always describes the scholar not as a 'lecturer' or a 'professor' or a 'research fellow', but rather as an 'academic' - a kind of damnation by faint praise.   As is well known, even a cliché, in other European cultures, intellectuals are persons accorded a kind of significant position in society, with high access to the media, not just sequestered in classrooms.  In 1960s Germany, the Frankfurt School philosophers and sociologists - Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas pre-eminent among them - were central to the upheavals and debates of the student movements.  Intellectuals were significant in May '68 in Paris, too, though not always the ones we remember now.  But in Ireland, many people would tell you that we do not have such figures.  

      In fact, of course, we do, but they are more likely to be historians or writers or journalists, than philosophers or political theorists or literary critics.  And nowadays those historians are likely to be university-based: one thinks of Diarmuid Ferriter, who spends so much time writing for the Irish Times or speaking on the radio that it's hard to imagine him finding the time to do much else.  One also thinks of Roy Foster, at his commanding citadel at Hertford College Oxford (now replaced by Ian McBride); or Joe Lee and the late Ronan Fanning, both of whom have at times written regular newspaper columns. Among the journalists, the pre-eminent figure today is and has for a long time been Fintan O'Toole.  And among writers, well the list is endless - Heaney while he was with us, Banville, Toibin, Enright, McGuinness - repeatedly, the media would turn to writers to distill some communal reaction to a particular event: 9/11, the Iraq war, the economic crash, particular atrocities of the Troubles.  But 'writers', at least Irish ones, are all-too often not very capable of conceptual or analytical thinking: they prioritise 'experience' over the abstract.  And so, the effect has sometimes been noble, but forms of bathos have also been displayed. Notably, last year, the Irish Times sought reactions to Britain's Brexit vote from Irish writers in the UK.  A more unrepresentative and ludicrous approach could hardly be conceived, as we were treated to Foster's wailing about access to his holiday home in France, and other liberals grinding their nicely polished teeth at the ignorance of the proles. 

      Not surprisingly, then, these 'intellectuals' seem very far from intellectuals in the European sense: they are none of them theorists (Irish historiography remains notoriously empiricist or positivistic in its sense of the disinterring or making of knowledge - no room there for Foucauldian genealogy, or Hayden White's rhetorics of history-writing, or a properly Marxist history like that produced by the great British generation of Hobsbawm or Hill or Kiernan or Thompson), and they don't have the time or the inclination for that particular marriage of abstract thought and radical analysis which one associates with Deleuze or Marcuse, Said or Butler.  So we do have intellectuals in Ireland, but the sphere is oddly impoverished.

      Back in the 1980s, the biggest single effort to change that situation was launched by Field Day, and in particular by Seamus Deane, the most gifted and important Irish critic then and now.   Deane had actually heralded what Field Day for a while became, with several long-forgotten essays, published in the early Seventies, on the idea of an intelligentsia and its desirability for Ireland.  That's actually what Field Day was, in the 1980s and early 1990s at least, with its theatre productions, its pamphlets, its massive anthologies, and then later its extensive book series and the Field Day Review: it was a kind of Irish version of the interventions in the public sphere of Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Belinsky, Bakunin and the other great Russian liberals of the nineteenth century.  These Russian writers took the cultural capital their literary prominence had given them, and who wagered that capital on political commentary.  Deane, Heaney, Friel, Paulin, Thomas Kilroy and their allies and contributors likewise worked in the belief that political critique could viably and effectively be launched from the zone of culture.  To make this comparison is both a measure of the honour and power of the Field Day effort, and also to note that it could no longer happen now.  It's almost impossible to imagine in early twenty-first century Ireland a comparable group of writers coming together in a civic-minded effort to organise a common public platform for radical ideas and socio-political reform or change.   This, though in many ways the need now is even greater than it was during the violent days of the Troubles.  The suppliant approach of the likes of Toibin to the plutocratic assemblies of national worthies at Farmleigh, in the early days of the economic crash in 2008 or 2009, is illustrative of the meagre intellectual resources available to us now.   

      McKenzie Wark is a writer I have known of principally as a historian of the Situationists, but he's been active in many spheres of thought and politics.  Now teaching at the New School in Manhattan, he has a new book out from Verso, General Intellects, which tries, on an international scale, to pick out and give profiles of the most interesting intellectuals or critical thinkers of the generation after the great figures that someone of my generation grew up reading.   Nearly all of the great French radical thinkers are dead, though a few figures such as Badiou or Ranciere or Cixous still do important and striking work.  In Germany, Axel Honneth heads up the Frankfurt Institut, and Habermas still contributes to public debate.  But who comes after the giants who departed in the 1990s?   Scanning that newer terrain is the task Wark sets himself, and in so doing he stakes his own claim to join the new company.  Here is an excerpt from his new book, posted on the Verso site.  We in Ireland have a great deal to learn from him.